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Tactics Insight: Why Is Hal Robson-Kanu So Much Better For Wales?

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Once again watching Reading fans were left puzzled by the performance of HRK for Wales. @WilliamOwain investigates why the forward is so much more effective when he wears the red shirt of Wales.

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It's all getting a tad predictable. Another passionate and historic night for Wales where a resilient and excellent defence hold firm, Gareth Bale puts in the sort of performance that leaves you in awe and remembering why Real Madrid made him the most expensive player of all time, and Reading fans wondering why Hal Robson-Kanu looks so much better playing for Wales.

The simple answer is that he's playing with better players. No disrespect to players like Garath McCleary and Danny Williams, but Bale and Aaron Ramsey are a serious step up in quality. They would improve any team in the world but there are plenty of other Wales players who are better than Robson-Kanu's Reading team mates.

The Wales team these days would more than hold its own in the Premier League and Robson-Kanu is an important part of that team. Of course with Wales you only have to look at the substitutes for Friday's game to realise Chris Coleman doesn't have many options to choose from. Their reserve goalkeeper has just been relegated to the Conference. Coleman could, though, have selected Andy King or Sam Vokes, both who played in the Premier League last season, ahead of Robson-Kanu but he went with the Reading man.

This may make Royals fans laugh but Robson-Kanu was chosen because he's very much a part of an attacking trio with Bale and Ramsey. As vital as them? Of course not but Coleman continues to pick him because in the same way as Bale and Ramsey improve Robson-Kanu's game, he helps them play at their best for Wales.

Against Belgium, Robson-Kanu played up front and, whilst there was plenty of evidence of him looking short of match fitness, he did a decent job. He was an outlet for the times when Wales needed to play the ball long. On more than one occasion he held the ball up well and it was him who won the foul which led to the free kick that resulted in Bale's winner.

The graphic below shows his 24 touches during the game. The number itself isn't very impressive but what's interesting is that 50% of his touches were either in the penalty area or the middle of the final third. Robson-Kanu wasn't asked to drop deep to pick up the ball, that was left to Bale and Ramsey. As I said, his job was to be the focal point of the attack.

If he was asked to do such a role at Reading then he would likely be in for a lonely shift. Against Brentford I remarked that Alex Pearce would have done no worse than HRK did up front. Partly that was because HRK was poor, but also because he got such a lack of support it wouldn't have mattered who was up front. They would have ended up being as useful as Pearce.

For Wales, Robson-Kanu never has to worry about a lack of support. The graphic below shows the 97 touches that Bale and Ramsey made on Friday night. Plenty are in the centre of the final third just like Robson-Kanu's.

This isn't a one off either. Below is a picture of the build up to Wales' first goal away at Israel. Robson-Kanu is circled and has the close support of Bale and Ramsey.

Below is another example, this time from Wales' 0-0 draw in Belgium. George Williams is playing the ball into Bale who lays the ball off for Robson-Kanu who forces Thibaut Courtois into a fine save.

When Wales players are on the ball they always have options. Watching Reading in the last few years it has become frustrating to see the lack of support given to the player on the ball. Tactically Reading haven't progressed since the Steve Coppell era, when being a hard working team with each player having a specific job was very effective.

Football has moved on and not surprisingly this has started to catch up with the Royals. One of the odd things about the Brian McDermott era was that as his teams got more predictable and limited the results got better until we stepped up to the Premier League.

McDermott deserves huge credit for getting the maximum out of his players but less credit for where he left Reading tactically. Nigel Adkins was supposed to be the man to modernise Reading but by the end there was little evidence that he had changed anything.

There were signs last season that Steve Clarke could be the man to transform Reading tactically. For all fans talk about them, formations are not that important. The tops teams play multiple formations in a game and are flexible in attack and defence.

Clarke could do worse than look at Wales. Against Belgium, they comfortable moved from 5-3-2 to 3-4-2-1 to 3-4-1-2 to 5-2-3. In the pictures below, the full backs are circled in red, the central midfielders green, Bale and Ramsey yellow, and Robson-Kanu in blue. The top picture shows players covering each other so there's a back five with a narrow midfield.

The picture below shows the full backs high up the pitch, Bale, Ramsey and Robson-Kanu attacking through the middle and the central midfielders supporting the attack. Such flexibility and movement of players' positions was very rarely seen during the McDermott and Adkins eras.

Robson-Kanu spent a lot of the game against Belgium as a lone striker, but at times he was partnered by Bale and sometimes they were both joined by Ramsey. The flexibility allowed Wales to be compact in defence whilst give their world class attackers (and Robson-Kanu) the freedom to be dangerous in attack.

At Reading, the strikers and wingers are often very isolated and rarely work together. The central midfielders struggle to connect with them and while the wingers will get some support from their full backs, the overall effect is a team not working together. It is no coincidence that Robson-Kanu's best games for Reading last season were also those where the team played an excellent tactical game which saw them defend and attack as a team.

In the cup win away at Derby, I noted how narrow Reading's midfield was defensively and how this allowed Robson-Kanu to get on the ball in the middle of the pitch, like he does for Wales. When Reading are at their worst their wingers become isolated and start to run down blind alleys and fire endless aimless crosses into the box.

That is not Robson-Kanu's game. He rarely crosses because he knows it should be done in moderation. It means he often holds the ball up and looks to bring teammates into the game. This is highly effective for Wales but for Reading it often leads to moves breaking down.

The hope has to be that as Clarke drags Reading into the modern day tactically, Robson-Kanu will be able to start putting in the sort of performances for the Royals which have seen him become a cult figure for the Welsh. He will certainly need to up his game if he's to stop being the Reading scapegoat and even a fan like me will admit he has been disappointing since our relegation from the Premier League.

Reading fans might not like to admit it, but in 2015 the club are going to struggle to get better players than the enigma that is Robson-Kanu. If he's good enough for Wales, he's more than good enough for Reading. That it hasn't looked like that in recent seasons says a lot about Reading, as much it does about Robson-Kanu.

All stats are taken from WhoScored. Images taken from BBC Match of the Day and UEFA Video highlights.